Obituary: Elsie Johnson Stephens skated in the Ice Follies

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2014 - 7:54 AM

Elsie Johnson, as an Ice Follies member. She later married auto dealer Win Stephens Sr.

Elsie Johnson lived a first-generation American’s dream when she parlayed her good looks and athleticism into a role with the famed Ice Follies.

She answered every call as an Ice Folliette for more than 1,100 shows from the late ’30s to the early 1950s, and appeared in the Hollywood movie that featured the figure-skating troupe.

When not working on the set alongside Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart with her fellow skaters in MGM’s “The Ice Follies of 1939,” Johnson and the others rubbed elbows and sneaked a peek at another movie in production that proved far more successful.

Elsie Johnson Stephens, who married Twin Cities auto dealership pioneer Win Stephens Sr., died March 17. She was 94 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She led a movie-star life and did a lot of things for many people and organizations,” said nephew Steve Boulka, who grew up across from Elsie and Win Stephens’ farm in Dayton. “She was like a third grandmother to me.”

More than 30 years after her Ice Follies days were over, she spoke warmly of her travels, elaborate costumes and celebrity watching.

During breaks from working in her one and only film, “I would hop on the tram every chance I got to go over to Lot 3 and see the filming of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” Stephens said in a 1986 interview with the Star Tribune.

For years, the Ice Follies of Stephens’ era rehearsed at the legendary Winterland in San Francisco and opened every season with a Hollywood premiere, complete with limos, lights and movie stars in attendance such as Clark Gable and Betty Grable.

“Being in the Ice Follies was the thing to do,” Stephens said in the 1986 interview.

Ronald Reagan was an opening-night regular in the front row, once explaining his devotion to an interviewer, “If I didn’t come to the Ice Follies, the ice would melt.”

In 1956, the weekend before Valentine’s Day, Elsie and Win Stephens Sr. were wed. She was 33, and the downtown Minneapolis auto dealer was 69.

“To be honest,” Boulka said, “I never heard of their age being a big deal. She always said that they always had a lot of fun together.”

As Mrs. Win Stephens Sr., Stephens poured herself into civic causes and antiques, operating a shop on Washington Avenue, about a mile from Win’s dealership just off Hennepin Avenue. (The dealership moved in 1963 to Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park and became Win Stephens Buick.)

“I guess I began collecting antiques when I was about 14,” Elsie Stephens told a reporter as she promoted a show held as an annual hospital fundraiser. “A person just needs to like history and be a little artistic to be a collector.”

The daughter of Swedish immigrants who settled in north Minneapolis, she counted items from the motherland among the more prized possessions on display at the Stephens’ 1906 farmhouse. Swedish canisters lined her cupboards and tables. She collected clocks, dolls and cut glass from Sweden and elsewhere.

“Elsie truly made it big for being a first-generation American,” Boulka said.

She was preceded in death by her husband, who died in 1973. She is survived by her son, Vince Egan, of Dayton, from a previous marriage. Services have been held.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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